One of the more compelling features of human existence is the way a person is both timeless and mortal. This is a deeply challenging “overlap” to fathom, by whatever means. It’s not to be understood by the mind, which is ill-equipped to reckon with timelessness.
Although it’s surely challenging to even a willing mind to register the profound message of mortality — that there will be a time after I have ceased to be — still, it’s possible to mentally approach such a recognition. Death being one of the few things known for certain to be on the horizon.
There is a number on every one of our lives, a certain allotment of days. A good deal of our common torment comes from not knowing what that number is. Mostly, we turn our intelligent eyes away from the fact of it all coming inevitably to an end. We live as though we have forever: to do the things that matter; to stop squandering life; to really Be Here.
This is the miracle, the vast blessing, of human existence.
All the while, the only thing we ever have (ever will) is today, one precious moment at a time. For the only piece of life that is actually experienced, ever, is the now. It is only in the immediacy of embodied life that our timelessness can be fathomed. Touched, one might say. To miss this, again and again, until it’s all come to a stop? What could be more poignant?
Meanwhile, one now after another, there is the persistent recoiling from the extreme discomfort that comes with the recognition of mortality. There is no more potent denial. Nor one with more power to cause suffering. All of it leaving us with the enduring failure to live, now. To live with the conscious awareness of brevity and uncertainty, a knowing with the ability to land a person smack-dab in the timeless moment.
* * * * *
There isn’t time. This expression embodies two meanings. It conveys “no time to waste” (no time like the present, since time is running out). It also points to the unreality of time, which (unlike the now) cannot be experienced. Time is accessible — it appears real — only via thought, which is able to remember and to visualize an imagined future, and to assemble the two into a mental picture of unfolding life as a line extending backward and forward.
The observation that both things are true only appears to be a contradiction. The limited mind cannot hope to reconcile them. Best to relax from the effort.
* * * * *
A few years ago a revelation took place on my interior. This occurred a long while after awakening, which had blessedly removed the fear of death.
Because I had ceased to dread death and the running-out-of-time it portended, I had become disinterested in my mortality. Each day, each moment, unfolded naturally, my eyes tending to be on the now. Surely all of this was a blessing, and it was experienced as such. The relief of the terrible burden of fear was so profound that nothing could be wished for beyond the delicious now, just as it was.
Even when a given moment brought sorrow, such as the death of a loved one or being in the presence of another’s suffering, there was no inclination to wish it would “hurry up and get over with,” or to anticipate a possible “better” future. Gone was the familiar refuge in some dream of what might happen a day or year distant from this one. Whatever focus there had long been on one-of-these-days simply dissolved. The only occasion for looking at something in the future was when it was practical to do so (scheduling and the like).
That is how things carried on, for a very long while, with no consideration of how life’s inevitable brevity and uncertainty might inform today. Or an envisioning of tomorrow. Then a brand new insight arrived on the scene. It made an enduring impression, one that’s significantly affected the way I live since then.
* * * * *
Who knows why these things come along, when they do? One of life’s sweetly enduring mysteries is the matter of why a certain seeing occurs when it does (and why not until then). The mind never ceases to be curious about such matters. But the heart knows better, when such a moment arrives, than to look away.
One day it dawned on me: Hey, just because you no longer fear death doesn’t mean you have forever. Wow! What might that be like, to look square in the face of brevity and uncertainty and to let that be a door — not into hideous fear but rather into a delicious “room” where I might ask questions of myself? Like these: Where is my heart’s deepest joy to be found? How do I most want my ordinary day to be? What am I willing to forgo for the sake of someone else’s wish, and (most significantly) What am I NOT?
In retrospect I can observe that asking such questions (after years of having essentially “set myself aside”) seemed to do with a movement toward being kind to myself. There was a palpable wish to grant that orientation a larger space than before. Perhaps it was something to do with the gentle dawning of my not having forever for one delight or another.
I began considering new possibilities. Is there anything I’d really love to do? Anything I’d revel in while I am alive, and reasonably healthy and fit, my cognitive and physical resources roughly intact? Is there someone I want to say thank you to, while both of us are still here for such an encounter? Some pleasure I’d like to take to myself, given that I can never know when the chance for such a thing has come and gone?
* * * * *
In short order, I made arrangements to take my newly-sober son on a celebratory trip to a place dear to me (which in fact came about, with breathtaking speed and boundless joy for us both). I ended a longstanding and much-loved work commitment, because I had ached for years to join a choir whose rehearsals occurred on the same night of the week. How I reveled in that music, that oh-so-bodied experience of song! One of my life’s purest joys. (Nor was the experience to last. Of course: nothing does. Making me all the more grateful I made the move when I did.)
I took great joy in searching for individuals who had been a blessing in my youthful life, so that — if they too were still alive — I might be able to let them know of their enduring significance. How I’d always remembered them, with such gratitude. Given that most of these individuals were my elders, I learned that some were no longer here to tell; more than one has died in the time since I reached out. (No time like the present!) Blessedly, I did manage to find a few of those I most wanted to thank. What joy, to be able to express what had long lived in my heart. Nor did it matter (at all) whether I ever heard back from any of them. In several cases, there did come about a rich exchange, with delight on both sides.
There was a man whose music I loved and had only recently discovered. I wanted with my whole heart to have the experience of sitting in a theater and drinking it in, the sight and sound of the actual Randy Newman sitting at his piano, in the very room I was in. I devoted myself to looking for upcoming concerts in the vicinity. In short order I found one that wouldn’t be too far away, at a venue I could actually get myself to. When ticket sales opened, I was first in line. I had the best seat in the house. Felt like I had died and gone to heaven.
One thing after another. I took a clear-eyed look at my living circumstances, allowing to come front-and-center a truth I’d quietly let be in the background until then: that my heart’s desire was to make a change in the situation. It came about, before long. It was not easy. But I was clear-eyed that it wanted doing.
All of it because of this: I didn’t have forever.
* * * * *
No longer, as in my life before, was any of this fear-based, or driven by the dread of possible regret. Nor was it inspired by the fond hope that something would finally deliver “fulfillment.” The impact on day-to-day existence was profound and far-reaching, and has remained so.
With awakening, because it no longer mattered whether I satisfied my own wishes, I had naturally and gladly set aside personal considerations for the sake of others. Nor had it felt like a “sacrifice” to orient to life this way, to give priority to another’s needs, since doing so in no way diminished the experience of the sweetness of momentary reality.
So what a surprise to find myself posing these “self-centered” questions. A surprise and, as it’s turned out, the new orientation to life has brought about full-bodied joy.
* * * * *
I came to understand how things had unfolded the way they had: how the departure of the fear of dying and the eventual registering about life’s brevity had dawned as distinct revelations.
All my prior life, the two had been fused: the fear of death and the focus on a desired future. As if they were all-of-a piece. This is how the egoic mind functions. One thing gets “fastened” onto another, in a way that seems inevitable, as if one part were inherent to the other. The way a life event becomes attached to the mind’s interpretation of it, rolled into a single thing.
So it had been for me. Because for decades I had associated the terrifying prospect of death with thoughts of what-to-do (later, always later) in the days and years ahead, when the first part (fear) dissolved, it seemed to take with it any consideration of the future. Of brevity.
This was natural, in light of the experiential “knowing” that only-now-is-real.
But the mind is still a useful device, even long after it has ceased to function as the ego’s devoted slave. The mind is able to understand that no human being lives forever. That there is indeed a number on our days. And that — most significantly — there is no knowing at what point the current physical and mental endowment will change, perhaps abruptly.
* * * * *
One last thing to observe, perhaps the biggest miracle of all. As each of these inspirations has taken root in my heart, there’s been the steady awareness that even if an eagerly-anticipated thing doesn’t work out after all, it will be entirely fine. There is simply no attachment whatever. I remember being aware (for instance) on the hours-long drive to the Randy Newman concert that my car could break down and I wouldn’t make it there. There was the steady recognition of unfolding uncertainty, in the getting-from-here-to-there (whatever a given plan might have been). And — right along beside it — the awareness that if things fell apart, meanwhile, I’d be entirely fine letting the thing go.
Here’s why. No longer, as in my long-ago life, was there “meaning” assigned to anything, including something I’d anticipated with intense pleasure and made great effort to bring about. It was not going to “give my life value.” No, I simply knew I would love it. And if it turned out to be otherwise, if I didn’t love it after all, or if it never materialized, it would not matter. Talk about blessings . . .
And when a given thing did materialize? The reveling and gratitude knew no bounds. Celebration galore.
* * * * *
I don’t usually carry on so much about myself, in these meandering missives. In this case, it seemed potentially illuminating to do so. My wish is that my sharing all of this might turn you, so tenderly, toward your own interior, to explore your own orientation to time’s unreality and the way it co-exists with the awareness of your mortality. To avert your eyes from neither reality, allowing each to take its place of honor in your awareness. This is the miracle, the vast blessing, of human existence: the mingling of palpable momentary joy with the equally-bodied experience of timelessness.
There isn’t time for it to be otherwise.